We need you to put the magazine down for a moment. No, don't stop reading— You just need a free hand (feet, toes, nose, mouth stick, or head pointer will also work). Now, take that hand, open your fingers into a flat palm, and curl your middle finger slightly forward, placing your hand over your heart with the middle finger pointing toward your body. If you move the finger in a small circle around your heart, you're signing a word that describes Susan Hendrickson as a person and contains the lesson she imparts to her deaf and hard-of-hearing students and their communities. That word? "Kind."
How to Describe
(In Two Signs)
In her 34th year as a Deaf and Hard of Hearing leader for Ottawa schools, Susan always knew what she wanted to do. One of her middle school teachers introduced her to American Sign Language (ASL) and sparked the passion that has become her lifelong pursuit. Due to Meniere's disease, her uncle had a cochlear implant, and observing his obstacles with hearing cemented her fascination with deaf education. As a member of a highly selective program at Illinois State University, her capability and commitment made sure that she was one of the few to pick up a job in the field right out of college.
Along with paraprofessionals and interpreters, Susan's team serves children in the Ottawa school district and several districts across LaSalle County. Her classroom even sees students from the outskirts of DeKalb and Grundy. The class sizes are small, but the content is not. She characterizes the program as "intense" and prides herself in the individualized attention they're able to give each student. Susan's day program includes teaching ASL but also Signing Exact English (SEE-II), which arranges ASL signs in the order of written English to aid reading comprehension. Some students are more oral communicators and work closely with a speech teacher to strengthen their expression.
Children can start the day program on their third birthday, and most stay on board through fifth grade. Because of the vast amount of time Susan spends with the same group of kids over the years, she and her team often become secondary members of the students' families. This familial bond was only made stronger by the unique pressures of the pandemic. Consistent high-speed internet connections are required for clear signing, and students without those networks struggled when schools went remote. Rising to the occasion, Susan became a kind of in-between for her students' families and the resources required to help them out, sometimes financially.
Susan would do anything to make life a "little better" for the families she works with. For her students? That's even simpler. Her preferred recipe for their future is one part happiness to one part success, whether in the form of raising a family or finding a particular job. She tells us she feels rewarded by her career to the point that, although she's on track to retire in the next few years, she would do this forever if she could. If ever someone was a model recipient for their dream job, she checks all the boxes. She's grateful to the district for a reason particular to the experience of deaf education teachers nationwide: "It's rather unheard of that a deaf and hard of hearing classroom has stayed in one building in one room for that many years. Mostly, they move around a lot… I know deaf ed teachers who don't even unpack because they're going to get moved next year…For this district to keep us in one building in one room has been phenomenal."
As for that last word, if you'd like to learn how to sign it, we'll use one of its synonyms, "wonderful." Take two hands flattened and vertical with palms out, hold them apart in upper neutral space, then briefly push both hands forward and forward again into lower neutral space. This can also double as a sign to indicate "Susan Hendrickson."